Alberta needs to redesign its ugly ’80s license plates

Sometimes, it seems like this province has a serious ’80s problem. The 1980s were a great time for Alberta: we had plenty of cash, and the Oilers didn’t suck. So it’s no surprise that a lot of our architecture and symbols date back to that decade. After 25 years though, a lot of these relics from the 80s are really starting to show their age.

One of these relics is our license plate. The design of Alberta’s plate hasn’t been touched since the year 1984, when it replaced a black-on-yellow design that was much uglier. Its typography is even older — the version of the “Alberta” wordmark that’s depicted on our plates was first introduced in 1972, more than 40 years ago. Our plate has survived for so long because there’s nothing urgently wrong with it: it’s clear and legible. Unfortunately, it’s also boring and dated.

Many of you might remember a previous (and abortive) attempt at redesigning Alberta’s plates, way back in 2014. Back then, the 3M Corporation was trying to convince us to buy their proprietary “flat plate” technology, and they drew up some nice concepts for us, which were dutifully put online by the Province for the public to vote on. This inevitably led to controversy: why were we letting some random company shortlist our designs for us? Ultimately, the redesign went nowhere.

License plates are one of the most recognizable symbols of the governments that issue them, especially in a car-obsessed culture like North America’s. They’re ubiquitous, widely recognized, and highly mobile. A really good license plate serves as free advertising for its issuing body. Think about the NWT’s polar bear-shaped plate: only 43,000 people live there, yet its license plates are world-famous. Drivers from Alaska and New Mexico — both with iconic plates — report all kinds of interest in their states, no matter where they travel to. Forget taking out advertisements in The New York Times or National Geographic: if you come up with a good plate, people will notice.

Despite our boring standard plate, Alberta is no stranger to good plate design. Our recently introduced “Support our Troops” optional plate is dignified, well-put-together, and attractive. It even won the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association’s highly coveted “Plate of the Year” award in 2014. People happily pay for it, even though it costs an extra $75. That’s right — good license plates actually generate profit.

Redesigning Alberta’s plates will cost money, but it’s a cost that can be offset by the introduction of more paid optional plates. Our license plate — one of our province’s most familiar symbols — needs to be redesigned and brought into the 21st century. This time, let’s open up submissions to the public, not to 3M of Minnesota. Alberta has plenty of domestic talent and provincial pride — a license plate redesign is a handy way to showcase both of these things.


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